This the final part of Sister Carrie, and the conclusion of the dialogue between Sarah of A Rat in the Book Pile and me. On this occasion Sarah leads the discussion, which may be found on either site. Please be aware. There are SPOILERS.
Chapter 37 begins with the downfall of Hurstwood. His hasty and ill-considered flight from Chicago, under a cloud of his own making, has crippled his financial security, and matters now take a turn for the worse. A further narrowing of his prospects leads to a sapping despair. He will not consider beginning again from scratch and his desire to rejoin affluent society, at a level above that which he can realistically achieve, effectively negates his remaining chances. Hurstwood is capable of lowering his sights, but there is always a lag, and he continually readjusts too little, too late.
Carrie begins to scent the spectre of poverty, and it isn’t what she signed up for. The shifting balance of power is obvious, the resulting action against Hurstwood tangible:
‘He gave the matter no more thought, but slept. In the morning she was not beside him. Strange to say, this passed without comment.
Night approaching and a slightly more conversational feeling prevailing, Carrie said,”I think I’ll sleep alone tonight. I have a headache.”
“All right,” said Hurstwood.
The third night she went to her front bed without apologies.
This was a grim blow to Hurstwood but he never mentioned it.’
Carrie is finally motivated to take the initiative, and begins to think again of seeking employment on the stage.
‘In a flash he thought he foresaw the result of this thing. Now when the worst of his situation was approaching she would get on the stage in some cheap way and forsake him. Strangely, he had not conceived well of her mental ability. That was because he did not understand the nature of emotional greatness. He had never learned that a person might be emotionally instead of intellectually great. Avery Hall was too far way for him to look back and sharply remember.’
Is this a fair and accurate assessment of Carrie’s nature and Hurstwood’s insight?
It has puzzled me how Carrie and Hurstwood stayed together so long and relatively harmoniously when they had little deep affection for each other. The best explanation I come up with relates to your question. Each mis-perceived the other. Carrie saw Hurstwood as strong, confident, able to take care of both of them. She was wrong. When his comfortable props are taken away, Hurstwood descends into a passive depression.
Hurstwood, on the other hand, sees Carries as dependent, good natured, in need of assurance, attractive but with no great abilities. He is also wrong. Her abilities are limited but, faced with the need to survive, she uses them effectively. His “insight” relates almost entirely to the effect of Carrie’s defection on himself. He might better have looked at what Carrie was trying to do for Carrie. He has a true 19th-century male conviction that a woman’s purpose in life is to be attached to a man.
I agree. Even in nineteenth century terms Hurstwood loses his claim to Carrie’s consideration because he doesn’t fulfil his part of the bargain: to protect and provide. However, Dreiser has not convinced me of the consistency of Carrie’s ‘emotional greatness.’
Dreiser foreshadows the eventual outcome with chilling precision:
‘The house-dog, held until middle age in comfort, will die of starvation if turned out into the woods to hunt alone. The house-dog, turned out a puppy, becomes a wolf, or so much like one that the difference is one of appearance only. So man, held until middle age in peace and plenty, forgets the art of shifting and doing. The skill and wit of the mind is atrophied. He appears to be something and lo, the poor brain argues that it must live up to that something, else it is disgraced. Courage to belie its feelings is not there. It must sit and wonder, waiting for the thing which it can do. It can scarcely change itself sufficiently to do as the thing requires.’
By the end of the novel Carrie is a successful woman, financially and, potentially, emotionally. Hurstwood has failed on all counts. Carrie’s sympathetic friend Ames, talking generally of a fictional character, states:
‘ “He didn’t fail in anything but love and fortune, and that isn’t everything” ‘
Ames is financially comfortable, and I wonder if Dreiser is poking fun at the naivety of wealth, but then he himself says, of Hurstwood’s last defeated action:
‘It was a truly wintry evening a few days later when his one distinguished mental decision was reached.’
Dreiser has subverted the moral notions of the time by allowing his female protagonist to triumph in the face of immorality, but Hurstwood suffers horribly. I notice that in this last installment I have focused almost entirely on Hurstwood. On paper Carrie has my sympathy and admiration. In practice I feel that her behaviour is not above reproach. Not in terms of sexual compromise, but in terms of her loyalty.
Is Dreiser’s sympathy entirely with Carrie? And what purpose does Hurstwood’s demise serve?
Dreiser’s book succeeds because he goes for the big picture, mostly. He sees the social problem of opportunity denied — to Hurstwood after he changes environments, to Carrie because she is uneducated and a woman. He sees Hurstwood’s failings, as much a result of his social conceptions as his own weakness. He sees Carrie, a person with no strong moral convictions but a desire for pleasure and the good life, as able to use the system to good effect.
I don’t think sympathy is what Dreiser does. He wants to show us the reality most of us would rather ignore. And yet…. Hurstwood’s death shows the cost of failure and some hint that Dreiser does really sympathize with him.
Expecting the novel to be concerned primarily with the place of the woman in the social order I was initially puzzled by the emphasis on Hurstwood, but I agree with your observation that Dreiser is interested in the workings of society in general, within the big city in particular.
I also think you are right in respect of Dreiser’s objectivity, but it seems to me that he lapses from time to time, particularly on the subject of Carrie. His depiction of Carrie does not always appear to match her actions, and verges occasionally on the sentimental. I might consider this a flaw, but one of the things I appreciated in Sister Carrie was the variations of narrative tone.
The conclusion of this novel is immensely moving, and Drieser seems to maintain the inevitability of cause and effect right to the end.
‘By January he had about concluded that the game was up with him. Life had always seemed a precious thing, but now constant want and a weakened vitality had made the charms of earth rather dull and inconspicuous. Several times, when fortune pressed most harshly, he thought he would end his troubles, but with a change of weather, or the arrival of a quarter or a dime, his mood would change and he would wait.’
Nonetheless, my suspicion is that what I have taken from the book is not what Dreiser intended.
The back of my copy states that Dreiser has an objective, non-moralising approach. Do you agree with this description? Can you sum up your overall view and final impression of the novel?
Dreiser does not intend to moralize but he can’t help himself sometimes, and I can certainly understand that. Some of his comments are more in the nature of sarcastic social commentary than moralizing, as in his description of the public lives of the rich and well connected.
My final impression of the book is as described in response to your previous question. Dreiser tells the story of three people — Carrie, Drouet, Hurstwood — and how they struggle and succeed or fail in an America which values wealth above all things. The shallow, rather happy, Drouet does the best, especially because he does not question the system. Hurstwood, who initially was doing well, violated the social codes (stole money, left his wife) and could not handle the consequences. His tragedy was his failure to foresee the consequences and to misjudge his own capacities. He plays by male rules and he dies.
Carrie violates the norms of female virtue, not out of passion, but for perfectly rational reasons. She seems not to regret this very much and it enables her to live a comfortable life. When that is no longer possible, she takes care of herself, using whatever small talents she may have to become self supporting. Now she has money, but is she happy? Of course not!
There is a question throughout the book: how can we achieve happiness and fulfillment? We get two partial answers. (1) You can be happy if, like Drouet, you stay within the system. (2) Money alone cannot make you happy.
A masterly summing up, Nancy!
I felt not that Dreiser was non-moralising, but that he is redrawing moral guidelines. There is a necessity to Carrie’s immorality which demands understanding. Drouet’s vice is frivolous but, in a sense, harmless, and it is ‘fair.’ Contrasted against these justified falls from virtue Hurstwood constitutes a fine example of the irredeemable. He has abandoned his family and cannot support the woman he has seduced. To him falls the traditional fate of the unchaste woman (Tess of the d’Urbevilles is even mentioned at one point). Hurstwood’s death is graphic and shocking, and questions the convention of rewarding virtue and punishing vice more effectively than Carrie’s comparatively undramatic success.
This is the official conclusion of our discussion of Sister Carrie, which we have enjoyed immensely, whatever our regular readers have been able to make of it Comments are, of course, always welcome, on both sites. My thanks to Sarah, who has been a very good sport in working through our sometimes convolut4ed dialogue. And if you haven’t yet read Sister Carrie, we encourage you to give it a try.